2014 Saskatchewan Roughriders training camp presented by Groundforce Drilling got underway Sunday morning here at Griffith's Stadium and I can't make this stuff up -- there was a dark, gray cloud hanging over the proceedings.
Make no mistake, the morning practice was an upbeat session as the team convened for the first time on-field since their 2013 Grey Cup championship on November 24 in Regina when the Riders beat Hamilton 45-23.
But on this cool Sunday in the Bridge City, Roughrider players wore black armbands as a show of solidarity while the CFL and its Players Association work through their current labour negotiations.
There was considerable concern training camps across the CFL wouldn't start at all after the two sides in the labour squabble broke off talks on three separate occasions beginning in March. As it is, training camps opened with no new Collective Bargaining Agreement in place. The old one expired on midnight of May 29.
While it's hard to imagine there will be a strike at all in 2014, those armbands are hard to ignore. Honestly I just thought they were sweatbands which players often wear but they made it clear what they represent.
By the time you read this, they may have gone on strike. Things have been changing on a daily basis but right now there doesn't seem to be a plan from the players going forward.
Regarding this training camp itself, it's a different vibe from last year when the Riders began the initial stages of putting a team together to challenge for a Grey Cup in Mosaic Stadium. 365 days ago the Riders assembled an All-Star cast which would roar out to an 8-1 start, its best in franchise history, on the way to a championship season.
This time around they seem a little more subdued. Gone are veterans Kory Sheets and Weston Dressler (to the NFL), along with Mike McCullough, Rey Williams and Geroy Simon (retirement). There are plenty of spots open on the team and it's a far younger group 12 months later.
"It's a different vibe but it's a good vibe," smiled Rider quarterback Darian Durant. "It's very youthful and energetic, and I like that. But at the same time we still have a good mix of veterans who can bring the young guys along. Our older guys are older but we're energetic too and we'll try to pass that down to the young 'uns."
With Sheets, Dressler and Simon gone, there are some big-time openings on the offensive side of the ball. However first-year receiver Chaz Schilens comes to the Riders after NFL stops in Detroit, Oakland and New York and he's already lining up with the first group of receivers. Running back Jermaine Thomas is a raw rookie out of Florida State and is atop the depth chart to open camp. Early on he's shown great speed and a knack for finding the holes.
So what's the motivation heading into this season? Head coach Corey Chamblin is quick to point out they'll never repeat that magical 2013 campaign, the best in franchise history. However leave it to a wily veteran to find a silver lining in that gray cloud.
"We're excited to have the opportunity to become legendary here," said Rider defensive end Ricky Foley. "You win one Grey Cup you're a member here forever. But we have a chance to win two in a row and I can't even imagine what would happen if we did. We're super-motivated at the opportunity to go back-to-back."
The mission to repeat is on!
(For daily Rider news follow Rod on Twitter at @sportscage)